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This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

The Glory of It Thali

The subcontinental meal known as a thali is the original Hungry-Man Meal: a metal tray that houses thimbles, cups and bowls heaped with vegetarian entrées from the southern Indian state of Gujarat. Thalis are rare in Orange County's Punjabi-dominated Indian dining scene, and the few restaurants that offer such an option usually hand eaters a tray and point them toward the lunchtime buffet.

But then there is the thali at YOGIRAJ, an Anaheim Indian vegetarian restaurant with pretty shell-based chandeliers, pictures of yogis and Hindu deities, and a television that always seems to show the same Bharat Gas commercial. The dinner begins with a water pitcher—ointment for the coming delicious fires. Polite owner Anubhai Patel then brings out the actual thali, composed of whatever veggies the cooks produced that hour. Sometimes it's sweetened black-eyed peas, spiced lentils and rasam, a sour tomato-based soup; other times you get a pea-potato stew or concoctions of cashews and peppers. To the side is a piece of pappadam (a hybrid cracker-tortilla chip) and a sextet of the puffy fry bread called poori, each about the size of a fist. A duo of what looks like cornbread but tastes like moist chickpea flour is topped with a shriveled, hellacious jalapeño.

Patel isn't done. Next arrive two chutneys of tamarind and chile paste and a pungent, reeking container of pickled carrots and jalapeño—yum! Soon after is the sambar, a traditional south Indian soup speckled with peppery black seeds. Then comes the sweetened raita. The last component is steamed rice, the foundation for the following mixing and matching, dipping and chomping of the various veggies. The individual flavors within the thali impress on their own, but inside your mouth create a mush the likes of which you'll never tire. Wash everything down with a rose sherbet, a creamy pink drink that tastes like strawberry Quik but with a hint of rose water—the best damn drink in the world.

Yogiraj does more than thali: baseball bat-sized dosas, Gujarat snacks and spicy pancakes fill up the rest of the menu. The only problem I have with Yogiraj's thali and much of Gujarati cuisine is that, despite its meat-free status, this is definitely not health food. The meals resonate with sweet vegetable oils, and you're supposed to slick everything with honeyed butter. Your fingertips will glisten with grease afterward—and then you'll lick them.

YOGIRAJ, 3107 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 995-5900.

 
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